This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Plenty was at stake when the Netherlands and the Czech Republic met at the Estádio Municipal de Aveiro on 19 June 2004. Dick Advocaat’s Oranje had it all to do following a 1–1 draw against Germany in their first Group D outing. Meanwhile, Karel Brückner’s side had a golden opportunity to book their place in the quarter-finals after defeating debutants Latvia 2–1.
The Czech Republic needed no extra motivation for this battle following previous meetings. Defeat to the Netherlands saw them struggle in their group during Euro 2000, while Advocaat’s men were also the only team to take points off the Czechs in qualifying for the tournament.
Brückner’s side started brightly in Aveiro. Powerful forward Jan Koller could only divert a volley over the bar after some good work from Tomáš Rosický before Marek Jankulovski rolled an effort into the grateful gloves of Edwin van der Sar.
However, their promising start mattered little as the Netherlands drew first blood. New Chelsea signing Arjen Robben swung a free-kick over the heads of the Czech defenders and into the path of Wilfred Bouma, who found space behind the opposition back-line to nod past the helpless Petr Čech.
Oranje took hold of what was a full-blooded encounter. Clarence Seedorf saw two attempts from distance whistle wide of the post, while Robben continued to cause the Czech defence problems with his speed and direct running.
After 19 minutes, the Netherlands’ persistence paid dividends, with Ruud van Nistelrooy netting his second goal of the tournament to put them 2–0 up. Edgar Davids pierced the Czech back-line with a perfectly-weighted pass to Robben, who found the Manchester United forward for a tap-in, prompting jubilant celebrations from Advocaat on the bench.
Four minutes later, though, the Netherlands’ lead was made somewhat less comfortable. Phillip Cocu’s loose backpass in the middle saw Milan Baroš bolt towards Jaap Stam, lining the defender up as he approached goal. After managing to poke the ball towards Koller on his right after some defensive confusion, the striker lashed home, halving the deficit.
Still, Brückner tweaked his approach, withdrawing right-back Zdeněk Grygera and replacing him with Liverpool man Vladimír Šmicer, adopting a three-man back-line with greater attacking impetus in the final third. It would later prove to be a decisive change.
Van Nistelrooy felt understandably aggrieved to have seen a strong penalty shout waved away, with Tomáš Ujfaluši clearly holding the Dutchman to prevent him from getting a shot away in the box, but the Netherlands continued to probe. John Heitinga’s rasping effort from distance was brilliantly saved by the fingertips of Čech before another long-range strike from Seedorf narrowly missed the target.
The Czech Republic managed to launch an attack of their own soon after as Koller’s audacious backheeled attempt was deflected behind after impressive build-up on the right from Pavel Nedvěd and Karel Poborský. Brückner’s side were somewhat fortunate to head into the break only 2–1 down, though, as Davids fired a low shot against Čech’s post just before half-time.
Following a brief pause for respite at the interval, the breathless affair resumed in a similar vein to the first half. The Czech Republic began on the front foot after the restart. Poborský was thwarted by Van der Sar, Nedvěd had an audacious volley denied, and Šmicer was unable to convert a teasing ball from Poborský. Brückner and his men were left exasperated.
The damaging moments for Oranje would follow. Van Nistelrooy missed a gilt-edged chance as his free header was saved by the legs of Čech, but the turning point came courtesy of a controversial decision from Advocaat. Much to his and the supporters’ frustrations, Robben was withdrawn for Paul Bosvelt, taking the wind out of the Netherlands’ attacking sails. De Telegraaf would later describe the substitution as ‘inexplicable’.
Then, the Czech breakthrough arrived. Šmicer had a powerful drive superbly stopped by Van der Sar, but the goalkeeper had no chance as Baroš emphatically netted the equaliser. Nedvěd clipped a cross into Koller, who then chested the ball perfectly into the path of the 22-year-old to crash home a glorious half-volley.
Andy van der Meyde had a chance to put the Netherlands back in front, but the legs of Čech again denied Advocaat’s side. The Czech Republic, already in the ascendancy, also received a timely boost in the closing stages, with Heitinga sent off after his second yellow card, both of which were awarded for fouls on the excellent Nedvěd.
The Juventus talisman tried his luck from the resulting free-kick from 35 yards but saw Van der Sar make a double save, firstly from his set-piece and then from substitute David Rozehnal’s follow-up. Still, he took the breath away once more with a frankly absurd effort, ranging the best part of 40 yards, as he unleashed a drive that swerved with some venom against the post, beating Van der Sar all ends up. It would surely have been the goal of the tournament, even at this early stage, such was the technique of the strike.
Eventually, the Dutch resistance was breached. Baroš carried forward a swift counter-attack for his side before finding substitute Marek Heinz, whose low drive was parried by Van der Sar into the path of Poborský. The winger showed composure to knock the ball across to Šmicer, who could hardly miss from yards out as he sent the Czech Republic into bedlam with the winner in this enthralling contest.
Brückner’s men completed an extraordinary comeback, inspired by the majestic Nedvěd and heroics of Čech in goal, as they reached the quarter-finals after just two games in Group D. The Czech Republic sought vengeance for their shortcomings against the Netherlands four years before and duly delivered in one of the European Championship’s most spectacularly eventful matches to date.
By Luke Osman @lukeosman_